Ninety-one years ago, guitar maker and musician Guadalupe Acosta established Acosta Music Co. downtown where Camaron crosses Houston Street.
Its glory days — it was once the largest music store in town — are all but forgotten. But the name lives on.
Acosta’s grandson Mike Acosta runs a guitar-repair shop on Bandera Road near Randy’s Rodeo, across the street from Fatso’s, under the family banner that’s been in continual use since 1920.
The original company specialized in handmade bajo sextos (Mexican 12-string guitars), Spanish guitars, harps, violins and other stringed instruments and songbooks.
An elegant storefront and workshop was first at 504 W. Houston St., near where the Alameda Theater now stands, and flourished from 1920 through the 1940s.
In the late ’40s, Guadalupe moved his family-run operation to the corner of Smith and Travis streets.
Mike Acosta still recalls the smells of the old place. He began working there as a teenager, sweeping the building, hearing the old stories and learning the repair trade from an uncle.
“Mostly it smelled of glue and lacquer,” said Acosta, who turns 72 on Monday. His grandfather shared tales, including the one about witnessing the hanging nearby of Clemente Apolinar, the last man executed inside the old Bexar County Jail on Camaron Street in February 1923.
Guadalupe’s sons — Miguel, Luis and Jesse — worked at the shop, too. But only Miguel, Mike Acosta’s father, took up the luthier trade. Jesse repaired band instruments. Luis, crippled by childhood polio, ran the store.
Like his father, Miguel was a classically trained, professional musician and performed as a mariachi, as well as in trios, orquestas and conjuntos.
Historian James McNutt, former director of research and collections at the Institute of Texan Cultures, recalled Miguel Acosta as “everyday folk” but also as a proud man “doing important work” in guitar innovation.
In the mid-1980s, Acosta participated in a project for the institute that documented step-by-step construction of a bajo sexto. It was once on display and is part of the collection.
“He was amazing to watch,” said McNutt, who wrote a chapter about the experience in the book “Hecho en Tejas: Texas-Mexican Folk Arts and Crafts.” “He played the bajos he made. He knew trio music and could play all the trills and do all kinds of finger work. It was beautiful to hear him play.”
“My dad was a good bajo player,” Mike Acosta added. “He was very knowledgeable.”
Honing his craft shoulder to shoulder with young Miguel in the ’30s was budding luthier Martin Macias, whom Guadalupe sponsored and whose bajo sextos made him world famous. He started at Acosta Music Co. and worked there for at least a dozen years.
The Acosta and Macias names became synonymous with the best bajo sextos, an instrument as essential to conjunto and norteño music as the button accordion.
The Acosta bajo sexto was known for its lighter weight and tone. Santiago Jimenez Jr. said it was the bajo of choice for his father, Don Santiago, and brother, Flaco.
It’s the brand of instrument that 12-year-old Flaco Jimenez played on his first recording while accompanying his father, “No Tuve La Dicha.”
Finer models were built with straight-grain spruce (top), rosewood (sides) and mahogany (neck). Depression-era instruments were sometimes fashioned with wood from gunstocks and wire from hangers.
“The woodwork and inlays were always very ornate,” Mike Acosta said.
One of Miguel’s greatest achievements came in 1947 when he built an electrified double-neck bajo sexto/guitar combination.
His feat was lost to history.
“He was the first,” his son said. “Unfortunately, he didn’t patent the idea. He didn’t know. This is before Leo Fender. He just had an idea.”
The ornate instrument bearing the name “Acosta 1947″ in wood inlay and using two early DeArmond “guitar mike” pickups was born out of necessity. Those times when the bass player didn’t make the gig, Miguel could cover the lower register as well as solos.
In the modern era, rock fans were dazzled by Jimmy Page’s double-neck Gibson SG and Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen’s multi-neck Hamer electrics.
Miguel Acosta’s experimental design ranks him with such legendary guitar innovators Les Paul, Leo Fender, Paul Bigsby, Adolph Rickenbacker, George Beauchamp and Paul Tutmarc.
“In the ’40s, everything was getting electrified,” said John Wheat, music historian and archivist at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History in Austin. “This fits right in with post-World War II; experimentation was in the air.”
The double-neck instrument still plays like a dream when plugged in.
Mike Acosta doesn’t know what happened to all the bajo sextos and guitars his father and grandfather made, including the first one Guadalupe ever fashioned from a cigar box and ukulele neck. But one treasured memento survives: the original Acosta Music Co. pendulum clock.
“It was in the old shop,” said Mike Acosta, who switched from band-instrument repair to guitar repair and refinishing at Caldwell Music when the Beatles sparked a garage-band explosion.
The old clock is where it belongs, and so is Acosta, who took over in 1974.
“My dad told me, ‘It’s funny. You had it in you all the time. I really didn’t teach you anything. It’s in your blood.’ “